The Capitals Oldest Ship
The wreck of the ship Inconstant - latterly known as Plimmer's Ark

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The only ship to visit Wellington and remain, even to the present day, brought neither immigrants nor cargo. Indeed, on Saturday, September 29th 1849, the 588 ton Inconstant was on a flying visit to the port to replenish her water supplies. Leaving Adelaide, South Australia on September 11th 1849 on a voyage to Callao in Peru with a cargo of tea and animal skins, Inconstant was approaching the narrow entrance to Port Nicholson when she failed to answer to a change of course (missed her stays) and went aground near Pencarrow Head at a place since named Inconstant Point.

Having remained aground for several hours and appearing not too badly damaged, Inconstant was floated free overnight by the Royal Navy survey steamer HMS Acheron and towed into harbour on the following day where she was beached at Te Aro. On further inspection she was found to be so badly damaged that she was condemned. In the charge of her agents, Bethune & Hunter, Inconstant was sold for 80 to Mr John Plimmer a pioneer whose name is indelibly stamped on the city of Wellington. Inconstant, whilst not fulfilling the role for which she had been designed and built, continued to serve in a role that would ensure she entered the history and collective consciousness of a city.

wpe9.jpg (48460 bytes) John Plimmer, an early immigrant to the City, arrived with his family on board the ship Gertrude on November 3rd 1841. It was not long before John made a marked and much respected name for himself in Wellington. Indeed he was to earn the name "Father of Wellington" during his lifetime. Well earned, this title was attributable to his faith in the new settlement, his conviction of its future and his contribution to its stability and success. He records in his own hand the events surrounding the beaching of Inconstant incident;
"...after much trouble and no little expense we succeeded in placing her in the required position....When I had got her firmly fixed and secured in every possible way I cut down her upper works and built a large building over the hull, 68 feet by 30 feet. The Government allowed me to make a bonded store of the lower half and granted me a licence for it."

As a successful merchant, John Plimmer soon made his mark on the commercial and social face of the city. His faith in its future was exhibited when, unlike many Wellingtonians of the day, he refused to be lured by gold in California and instead invested in the township. Having bought a strip of land along the then beach stretching from Plimmers Steps to Clay Point, he beached  Inconstant in the area of the beach now occupied by the Bank of New Zealand building and converted the hull into a bonded store. Above this he built offices and connected the whole to the land by a jetty. Many pictures exist of this strange but eminently practical construction but none really give any idea of it's length, height or true dimensions. Seen from the sea, Inconstant would have stretched 38 meters (over 125 feet) out into the harbour and would have been a good 8 meters (26 feet) wide.

Up until the major earthquake of 1855 much of the hull of Inconstant was surrounded by water and other vessels were able to dock alongside to unload cargo and immigrants. The earthquake raised the shoreline about a meter making the water surrounding her too shallow and in 1856 a retaining wall was built around her north side using spoil from Clay Point above.

The ship itself was a regular "production line" model built by George Old at Bras D'or shipyards in Nova Scotia for functionality rather than aesthetics or speed. Indeed in some places the original birch bark may be seen still attached to the wooden members. Whilst in this position she was held upright by a series of wooden props cut from dressed timber and these are obvious by their dis-similarity to the timbers of the ship.

In 1883 the structure on her deck was demolished and her ribs were cut down to ground level. In time  the city grew and much of this growth was northwards into the sea that over the years, through reclamation, was to become dry land. As reclamation continued it covered the remains of the hull of Inconstant. By this act, the timbers of the ship were preserved from serious deterioration. During the excavation of the foundations for the building of the Bank of New Zealand in 1899, some of these timbers were uncovered and portions taken to form Directors Chairs, one of which is able to be viewed at the Alexander Turnbull Library.

More recently, with the 1998/99 renovations being made to the old bank building to turn it into a shopping precinct, the remains were re-discovered (even thought it was known that they lay there) and removed, with the exception of a portion of the bow now on display under glass in the Banks Vault courtyard. The rest of the ship was transported to Shed 21 on Wellington Wharf where it is undergoing the long and painstaking process of permanent preservation. I have had the honour of viewing and touching these relics from the early days of Wellington City and of being the guest of the Project Manager for an afternoon. Along with the ships timbers a large number of artefacts were retrieved from the surrounding mud. Shoes, plates, bottles, buttons and lead shot were amongst some of the treasures saved from permanent isolation and possible destruction by this small but dedicated group.

We recommend that you take the time to view the display of these relics and of the ship Inconstant in the Old BNZ Building on the corner of Lambton and Customhouse Quays. It has been said that in a country with such a brief history as New Zealands it is possible to reach out and touch the past. Right here with the preserved remains of Inconstant is your chance to do so.

Copyright: Denise & Peter 1999, 2000, 2001